Basketball is the simplest of team games. There is a ball and there is a basket, and the object is to get the ball into the basket more times than the other guy. You don't have to put on lots of pads and helmets and things, or run any Z-outs or button crosses to do it; you don't hit the ball with anything or worry about gloves and masks or strike zones and curves. Nor do you have to contend with winds and bad lies or body checks and soft ice. Basketball is just basketball. Here is the ball, there is the basket, let's play basketball.
As our color essay on page 32 demonstrates, basketball, perhaps more than any other professional sport, is also a game of identity. In its simplicity, nothing is hidden; by its setting, all is in the open. A fan sees everything and, more often than not, he is close enough to hear everything, too.
Amid the remarkable surge in popularity of pro football and the continuing love of baseball, professional basketball has held its own; indeed, the game recently has made several significant advances. The National Basketball Association has spread from coast to coast and, having added a franchise in Seattle this year (SI, Oct. 9), it has now expanded into the heretofore virgin major professional-sports territory of the Pacific Northwest. Hopefully, the new American Basketball Association can survive, and also grow. Already its debut has assured exposure of the professional game in the South; with ABA teams in New Orleans, Houston and Dallas, pro basketball now encompasses the country. The sport has further enhanced its reputation by distinguishing itself in that all-important field, money. Just before the NBA's 22nd season opened last week, two of the league's stars, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, ended their annual holdouts and signed to play for one year, reportedly for a combined total of about $365,000.
Surprising, at least to me, is the fact that it has been such a long, hard pull. On the college level, the sport has endured several betting scandals, and the NBA alone has gone through two dozen franchise shifts. Where Los Angeles and San Francisco and Philadelphia and Boston now stand, Providence and Sheboygan and Waterloo and Anderson once stood. What has been holding basketball back? Critics of the pro game have always contended that it was played by goons and freaks who aren't really athletes. "So what if they can do everything with the ball?" the line goes. "They still can't autograph it." The truth is that basketball is probably the most physically demanding team game of all. Whereas a paunchy pro can hang on in baseball by pitching relief or rapping a few pinch hits, and in football by kicking field goals or blocking the path between tackle and guard, he could not play half court in basketball without collapsing. Running is the fundamental of the sport. Basketball players are shocked when they see the plush layout of food and drink waiting after the game in football and baseball clubhouses.
It is an even more flagrant myth that the game is populated by ignoramuses. From my own contacts with them, I know professional basketball players to be among the most articulate, informed and personable of athletes. It is, perhaps, this final element that has lifted the game to its present heights. As some long-lost philosopher once said, "Class will tell." And the caliber of men inhabiting the NBA guarantees that pro basketball's class is first class. In recognition of that fact, we present our annual pro issue this week with the most extensive coverage of the sport we have attempted yet.